I am reading Mortimer J. Adler's How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education. I have not finished it, which is why my judgment is premature. That said, I do not believe it is inaccurate.
This book was released in 1940, the original preface was written in 1939, and Adler had presumably been at work cogitating and writing for some time before that. The book must therefore be located in the historical context of the rise of fascism and the decline of free thought that accompanied the moral and intellectual abdications resulting from the War to end all Wars. These abdications will be taken up below, along with a brief discussion of the historical parallels, and a call to action will be presented, all colored by own (I hope) thoughtfully pro-American yet redemptive-historical Christian perspective.
If you wish for a synopsis of this post: Read this book, and get an early edition (prior to the Adler/Van Doren revisions of the early seventies).
It is a stroke of good fortune that I had but recently read (aloud to my wife) Lewis' Abolition of Man, lectures delivered in 1943 at King's College, Newcastle. Lewis explicitly takes up the moral issues that parallel the intellectual issues approached by Adler, and presents a strong case that these issues are inextricably bound together in the life of man and men at large; Adler presents a similar but muted case, and proceeds to limit his argument to the intellectual arena. Perhaps some of my readers will be uncomfortable with Lewis' argument for natural law, either because of its grounds or its conclusions, so I will pause to present a brief defense of his method and outcome.
Lewis may be attacked by some as an evidentialist in his apologetic - presenting proofs for God as though one could be logically triangulated into the necessity of the admission that there is a God. The evidentialist apologist can, in fact, tree his quarry, but there will always be two options - God or Nothing. Besides this, no Christian possessed of an ounce of orthodoxy will argue that anyone may be converted by argument. The Holy Spirit changes hearts. Arguments, both moral and intellectual, may serve to highlight inconsistencies in a person's views, and even to demonstrate consistency within the views of the Christian, but I believe my earlier metaphor of a treed quarry is apt. Lewis (and Adler at last) got caught by the Hound of Heaven. Nietzsche jumped to his doom. Lewis' method in Abolition is also carefully bounded to exclude the charge of arguing an unprovable. He demonstrates an unprovable, the natural law, across culture and history, and concludes that any attempt to "prove" natural law posits an observer outside that law - and the process of "getting outside" must destroy any possibility of a valid conclusion. Either right and wrong are objectively meaningful, or nothing at all can be.
The conclusion thus reached - the existence of a natural law which is generally acknowledged to proscribe such things as murder, theft, adultery, arson, etc. - is objectionable to an entirely different group for an entirely different reason. A subset of Christians make an effort to deny the existence of natural law - law that is written on the hearts of all men, at all times, everywhere - because it seems to them to limit the clear need for God's explicit revelation of Himself. It seems to me that this group is essentially overreacting to a hyper-Thomist ethic, which attempts what Lewis will not - to prove the unprovable ultimate good. Just because many thinkers have abused man's reason, seeking to take it farther than it can go, or stifling it in its cradle, does not justify an abdication. Guarding the bridge of man's natural reason ought not to involve blowing it up. Thus far for Lewis. Let us return to Adler, by way of an illustration.
The US Senate recently chose to degrade the power of the filibuster - requiring a simple majority to overrule a filibuster-er instead of a 60-vote supermajority. Why is this relevant to our discussion?
Many lamentations have been raised about the partisan polarisation of our nation. The left gets lefter, the right gets righter, the moderates get sniped from the fringes, and less and less gets done, woe, woe, woe.
May I venture the suggestion that the current generation in politics (the baby-boomers, with a sprinkling of the rising Gen-X) can neither read nor write? This is the generation that suffered the worst whipsaws and excesses of progressive experimental education in the 1960s and 1970s, the generation that saw (and supported) the abolition of the oppressive WASP-y Eurocentric education received by their forebears, the generation that didn't trust anyone over 30 (much less Cicero and Aristotle).
It is too great a charge to accuse this generation of destroying reading. That had been completed by their fathers, the Woodrow Wilson-era progressives, the scions of the Great War, the men who presided over a nation astounded at war, committed to peace at any price, the first American utopians to hold high office (and W.J. Bryan falls squarely in this circle). These men were demagogues with good motives. They were benevolent propagandists, and they begat propagandists. The danger is always that the succeeding generation, unmoored from the anchors that held their fathers' consciences and afloat on the currents of the moment, will act on their own whims and mistake the vicissitudes of their fevered brains for ideas. This is the final danger Lewis warns about, and it is this monster that Adler is combating.
But how to tame the demons let out of the box? Adler proposes the same way they have always been tamed: discipline in your own mind and true education. True education that looks back, mining the books of the great men to bring them alive for us now; true education that seeks to direct the enterprise of discovery in a carefully-hewn channel, lest it spill forth and drown us in old novelties; true education that seeks to cultivate ordinate virtues in the minds of men (and here I borrow from Lewis, but amenably) that they may discern good and evil, gauge the weighty and the ephemeral, and make just judgments wisely worded.
How may we do this?
Ad fontes! Back to the greats, back to the Greeks, the Romans, the Church Fathers, the Reformers, the great Britons, and so on. Adler even proposes raising the level of general education without the schools involved so that an enlightened population might be so bold as to explode the defunct pseudo-educational enterprise that passes for schooling (written in 1940, mind you).
I am not a utopian, nor am I a light-and-glory American-zionist. I do, however, think that a well-educated, thoughtful, and thus well-ordered and governed nation is the natural fruit of a nation filled substantially with Men with Chests - with men who accept the natural law (and many of whom may accept God's revelation in Jesus Christ as well), and who do not seek to overcome it, depart from it, or subvert it, but accept it as the Tao in which all right-thinking men must walk. Such a nation seeks to truly educate - to train up the minds of the young to walk well in the Tao, to love the beautiful, seek out the true, honor the good, and the best do. This nation will have a range of opinion - the Tao is not as narrow as the wicket gate - but these opinions will be argued in the true sense of the word. They will be publicly disputed based on honest interpretations of natural facts, human nature, and the wisdom of particular actions with particular consequences.
It might serve as a useful reminder here to note that the American constitutional convention was not a unanimous love-fest, but a long, arduous, painful and powerful debate about what was wisest. The framers and signers were careful men who had studied men, and had well-formed and well-articulated opinions about the nature and behavior of men.
Only educated men may make educated arguments. Fools rage and laugh. Adler, Lewis, and I, would strongly prefer you not to be a fool. I'm working on it myself. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but you might also take a look at How to Read a Book. Free minds - the product of disciplined training, able to act on what is necessary in the manner demanded by the moment - make free men.
Only Free Men may ably defend the freedoms of themselves and others. This ability is increasingly demanded by assaults on liberty within and without our nation. Let us rise to the occasion, lifted on the backs of the giants who wrote before us.